Cyborg Communitarianism

Since life on Earth is so hard, the utopian imagination likes to turn to space. Almost as soon as astronomers and their telescopes emptied the heavens of angels, philosophers like Bernard Le Bovier ...

Since life on Earth is so hard, the utopian imagination likes to turn to space. Almost as soon as astronomers and their telescopes emptied the heavens of angels, philosophers like Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle and spiritualists like Emanuel Swedenborg rushed to imaginatively repopulate the newly familiar planets with allegorical utopias. After the “canals” of Mars were discovered in the 19th century, early science fiction picked up the theme. And when the pioneers of spaceflight began scheming ways to get there, they did so with designs as much social as petrochemical: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia and Robert Goddard in America both imagined rocketry as a means of propelling humanity into a more perfect, space-borne future. Even today, in texts like Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars, futurists frustrated by Earth’s accumulated environmental and social errors point to Mars as a place where the species might escape its own past, and establish a more humane society than any on humanity’s home planet.

In Seeing Like a Rover, the sociologist Janet Vertesi argues that Mars has already begun to make us better. The book presents itself as an ethnography of the researchers behind Spirit and Opportunity, the NASA rovers launched to Mars in 2003. Focusing on the rovers’ photographic mission, it describes the tremendous feats of collaboration and planning necessary to take pictures 140 million miles away. For the most part, Vertesi confines herself to seeing like a sociologist, meticulously describing the workaday reality of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team. But over the course of the book a more ambitious subject emerges: the techno-utopian communitarianism animating their research.

Vertesi hints at this subject with her title, a riff on James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. Scott’s book inveighed against the arrogance of “high modernist” statecraft (Soviet collectivization; Tanzanian villagization) that ignored local complexity in favor of utopian abstraction, with disastrous, often genocidal consequences. Like Scott’s planners, Vertesi’s scientists are occupied making messy reality visible to government bureaucracy. But since the rovers can do little more than take pictures and leave tread marks, their operators are necessarily attentive to and respectful of Martian realities. Vertesi describes how frustrating this could be, as when tiny patches of sandy soil became existential dangers requiring thousand-man-hour rescues. But she also describes how this enforced humility cultivated an institutional character at NASA that stands as a “counterpoint” to Scott’s bulldozing apparatchiks, one boasting “a flattened hierarchy, a celebration of disciplinary diversity,” one “oriented toward consensus, not authoritarian control.”

The “radical collectivity” Vertesi praises as both the product and necessary condition of image-making on Mars seems, however, to have collected around one autocratic exception: the rovers themselves. MER, as Vertesi found it, was comprised of around 150 people, focused at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena but spread out in institutions across the world. What knit these far-flung collaborators into one effective social body was their obsessive personification of and identification with their robots. Vertesi introduces us to “Liz,” a rover camera operator who never takes a picture before contorting herself, in a highly practiced act of biomechanical ballet, into an imitation of the rover’s current configuration. Only then does she begin translating those contortions into the complex instructions that will be beamed as X-band radio waves to Mars. “We are the corpus, the body of this rover,” Liz explains.

If this description sounds almost religious, Vertesi encourages the comparison, inviting readers to consider the rovers as totems in Durkheim’s sense: “Care of the totem requires adherence to elaborate rituals … in which members of the group may imitate the object that brings them together.” MER’s rituals included daily mission-status videoconferences gauging the relative “happiness” of the rovers. After enough of these meetings, distinct personalities emerged for the rovers: Spirit the diligent workhorse and Opportunity the finicky glamor girl. After describing how Spirit scaled a hill the height of the Statue of Liberty, one scientist boasted “If you can listen to that whole story and you can look me in the eye and say she doesn’t have a personality, then you are the robot!” Others are eager to confess just how robotic they’ve become: In mid-March 2006, one of Spirit’s operators was working in her garden when “All of a sudden I don’t know what’s going on with my right wrist, I cannot move it—out of nowhere!”  At work, she learned that Spirit’s right front wheel had malfunctioned. “I am totally connected to that gal!”

Of course the love of Martian rovers goes far beyond their handlers, and Vertesi devotes considerable space to the utopian possibilities they offer to the broader American public. “The problem with American society,” one scientist says, “is we don’t have a frontier anymore, so we’re turning on each other.” Photographs from Mars, though, present a new frontier where curious Americans, like NASA scientists, are united in collective robotic eyesight. In the nearly ten years since Vertesi conducted her fieldwork, NASA has only amplified its invitation to identify with the rovers. 2011’s Curiosity is programmed to sing itself happy birthday, and on its personal Twitter account it casts its slow roll over the red planet as a comic interplanetary picaresque. August 5th, 2012: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!” The next best thing to a living, breathing person on Mars is an active social media account.

As humans do increasingly superhuman things, it makes sense that they should increasingly identify with the tools enabling them. Vertesi’s book presents strong evidence for how such acts of collective identification can foster egalitarian institutions, responsive to complexity and resistant to top-down authoritarianism. In the MER team, no one seems worried about pleasing their boss, if only because everyone’s more worried about pleasing the rover. But, in the narrow focus of her book, Vertesi neglects to speculate beyond rovers, about the less-than-utopian forms this cyborg communitarianism might take. Just as Seeing Like a Rover points backwards at Seeing Like a State, this book about the bureaucratic remote control of distant picture-taking robots points forward to an as-yet-unwritten text, Seeing Like a Drone. Rovers are benign objects of bureaucratic adoration, since all that makes them “happy” is rolling around and taking pictures. But what makes an MQ-1 Predator “happy”? What institutional character would arise from collective identification with it? Vertesi proves how effective robots are as totems, binding a group and raising it above the liabilities of merely human societies. But robots have their liabilities too, and totems are famously capricious in their demands. icon

Featured image: A rover test drive. Photograph courtesy the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory